For 50 years, the Saint Albans Museum (SAM) has traditionally opened its doors for the season in early June. Generations of volunteer guides, known as docents, would offer personalized tours, sharing their favorite stories about the people, places, and events that defined this community. Popular topics included the legacy and impact of the Central Vermont Railroad, local agriculture, politics, medicine, the Civil War, and more – for visitors of all ages and interests. Located in the historic former Church Street Academy school at the top of Taylor Park, the museum typically hosts a monthly lecture series, youth/family activities, and other community and holiday events as well – offering free public and educational programming throughout the year. Museum leaders acknowledge the 2020 season will be different than any which has come before it.
“Just as it did for our community, area businesses, schools, and organizations – and the rest of the world – COVID-19 changed everything,” said Alex Lehning, Executive Director of the Saint Albans Museum. “We’re in the midst of a historic moment during this pandemic, and it is requiring all of us to respond with creativity, resilience, and patience. For the well-being of our guests, staff, and volunteers, SAM is delaying our official opening until later this year – but our ‘virtual doors’ will certainly be active and open to all online.”
Over this past winter, museum volunteers were busy working together on a variety of projects, including upgrading collections registration software, researching the local history of Prohibition & Women’s Suffrage, and completing renovations for an updated “Rail City” exhibition room. That all changed with a suspension of on-site activities on March 12. SAM’s first priority, according to Lehning, was to address health and safety concerns – and then to develop procedures to complete research, writing, and collections management tasks remotely. The Board of Trustees and various project committees continue to meet regularly, with discussions held via Zoom or by phone. The second area of emphasis was mission-focused, fostering new opportunities to provide access to the museum’s collections and archives from anywhere. SAM’s first effort within this new model was to launch a “History from Home” portal in March – featuring complimentary access to recordings of presentations, DIY activities, articles, and other historical resources to support educators, students, and families during remote learning, as well as anyone who was simply curious about our region’s past.
More recently, SAM hosted a virtual field trip for 4th graders at Swanton School on the St. Albans Raid, and volunteers and staff are currently recording a series of brief gallery talks and trips to regional historical sites. Lehning, along with museum intern Lisa Evans, also launched a new podcast, “Northwest Passages,” and posted the first three episodes online – sharing stories of French-Canadian and Lebanese immigration, as well as tales of growing up in St. Albans from community members who lived those experiences. More episodes in the series will be released later this summer. The Museum also increased their social media presence, highlighting ‘mystery artifacts’ and featuring other stories from our area history. In addition, SAM is working with the Vermont Holocaust Memorial to co-host a discussion panel on contemporary antisemitism.
“When it was originally organized, the St. Albans Historical Society met in the living rooms and kitchens of their members to discuss history, share slide shows, and debate original research papers,” said Lehning. “In some ways, operating as a ‘Museum without Walls’ now is about finding current and relevant expressions for those foundational values of storytelling, personal engagement, and a genuine dialogue around our shared experiences – past and present.”
Amid the many transitions underway at SAM to comply with new practices and guidelines in response to the coronavirus, the Museum also recognized the importance of acknowledging another critical issue facing the nation in this historical moment. As a cultural heritage institution that is entrusted with community memory, SAM has a responsibility to reflect and respond to the call to action inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the ongoing national conversations that recent protests around the country – including in our own hometown – have sparked. “We believe unequivocally that Black Lives Matter,” Lehning emphasized. “Historically, museums inhabit a troubling legacy of exclusion and marginalization – preferencing some lives and voices over others. This is especially true when it comes to histories of communities of color, indigineous peoples, and women. While the Saint Albans Museum has made intentional efforts in recent years to ensure displaced perspectives and experiences are represented in our displays, we recognize that there is still more important work to be done. As each of us are asked to search our own heart and conscience, as an organization SAM is announcing that we are committed anew to learning more about the full historical impact and legacies of systemic racism, to listening more deeply, and to moving forward with equal measures of education, empathy, and action.” The Board will appoint a Diversity & Inclusion Committee and solicit input from community members to assist in this ongoing effort to broaden the scope of SAM’s displays and publications.
Following emerging guidance from the state, local, and federal officials, the museum’s leadership team is working to develop policies and procedures that will allow them to open safely at a later date; for now, staff and volunteers are working on-site in a limited capacity, and the museum’s historic facility will remain closed to the public. SAM also decided to continue with a modified annual membership drive (which normally takes place during the summer). Anyone who makes a donation in 2020 – of any amount – automatically becomes a full member with all benefits for the year. Despite receiving a PPP loan and some small emergency grant funding, the Museum (a 501c3 nonprofit) projects significant losses due to coronavirus and is actively seeking new sources of financial support. In July, they will host the “SAMazing Race” – a virtual scavenger hunt and fundraiser – with other digital fundraising events to follow.
SAM is also collaborating with a variety of community nonprofits, libraries, state agencies, schools, and groups to facilitate digital versions of “Lake Lessons” – a cultural heritage/STEM workshop – as well as an online lecture series and virtual field trips. Educators and others interested in partnering or participating may contact the Museum office for more information.
“The Saint Albans Museum will continue to offer the award-winning programming that members, guests, and residents have come to expect, just in a new way and different format,” said Lehning. In the coming months, you are encouraged to ‘visit’ these new digital initiatives – including recorded behind-the-scenes tours, online exhibitions, and more. Community members and others can share their own stories, recollections, photographs/digital images, and memories – online, by phone, or by mail. SAM is accepting donations of objects by appointment (or mail with pre-approval). As noted in their mission statement, the Museum collects the history of St. Albans, Franklin County, and northwestern Vermont; the following topics represent planned displays in progress or currently in active research:
– COVID-19 / 1918 pandemic
– Black Lives Matter/ Women’s March/ social justice movements
– women’s suffrage
– historic architecture
– business community
– local schools & sports
– St. Albans hospital
– the “Rail City” and Central Vermont Railroad
“Everyone has a story to tell – and we are extending a personal invitation for community engagement with our local history, now more than ever,” concluded Lehning. “We can still be together, apart when it comes to exploring and understanding the past – and that knowledge will certainly help us move forward collectively into an uncertain future.”